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A question often arises as to who has what authority, or how decisions can be made by a seemingly endless consensus loop. it is the purpose of this essay to describe in detail how such a situation is employed here at wikibooks.
Who has AuthorityEdit
The question of who precisely has authority in general, or who has authority over particular matters is a common one. Despite it's commonality, it is at the same time the least relevant and helpful. If a person or group is listed with such authority, the inevitable follow-up question is to ask by what virtue that authority was granted. with a similar answer as to the virtue, the inevitable question arises as to who decided to use that virtue as a metric, and by what authority did those people make such a decision?
The result of this exercise is utter pointlessness, as no finite conclusion is ever reached to any amount of satisfaction.
Authority as UbiquitousEdit
In the world of Wiki, authority is essentially ubiquitous. No single user has any more authority then any other. At the same time, no single user has complete authority (and by extension all users lack complete authority). The result is that people are able and empowered to make changes, while at the same time they are required to work together in complex ways and reach agreement. As Albert Einstein once said: "Let every man be respected as an individual and no man idolised."
While the wiki maxim is be bold, there are a number of limiting factors that help to prevent complete chaos. While any user may make a change to a particular page, any other user has the authority to modify or remove completely that change. Two or more users so empowered, will revert one another repeatedly, producing an unstable oscillatory content version, which is worse in many respects then a single incomplete version. As reverts, edit wars, and wheel warring are limited by policy, these events cannot be allowed to persist beyond a few cycles. For either of the disputants to make a change and therefore an improvement in a page, they must work together and reach compromise. Frequently, when discussions are polarizing, it is impossible for two disputants to adequately compromise, and so an appeal is made to the authority of additional community members to help render a suitable (if not perfectly acceptable) solution.
Authority Vs. PowerEdit
This is a good time, perhaps, to discuss the ideas of "authority" and "power". To reduce confusion, these words will be specifically redefined here for local uses:
- The ability of a wikibookian to make changes.
- The ability of a wikibookian to make decisions.
The notion of power then is little more then a technical limitation. Users are granted the ability to edit, modify, and move pages. Users then have a certain amount of authority in making those changes over which they have power. This would seem to lead to a discrepancy between regular users and admins, as admins have more power, and then would seem to have more authority then regular users.
Admins as Exceptions?Edit
The truth is that admins are not necessarily exceptions, nor do they stand out in terms of their authority on ordinary matters. However there is clearly a distinction between admins and users that must be considered.
Consider the case of a VfD discussion that has more or less reached general consensus that a particular page should be deleted. Once such consensus is reached an admin may, at their discretion, act to delete the page. Of the pool of available admins, any particular admin may act at the request of the community to delete the page. A question arises then as to what precisely happens if no admin does perform the deletion? What if the community agrees in general to promote a new admin, but no bureaucrat performs the promotion? What if numerous community members call for a checkuser of a related group of vandals, and no checkuser performs the requested actions?
Admins have authority over their use of the admin power, but ordinary users do not have such authority. In essence, an ordinary user cannot mandate an admin to use their power, or to use it in a particular way. Through the mechanism of RFA, new admins are simultaneously granted new power and the necessary new authority. No user may mandate the use of a power over which they have no authority.
Decisions as PersuasionEdit
Don't think that regular users have no sort of influence over the actions of admins, as this is certainly not the case. Any argument that is sufficiently compelling will likely draw at least one sympathetic admin from the pool to act in a particular manner. In VfD, for instance, it only requires one admin to delete a particular page, so only one admin needs to be convinced of that particular argument. If the arguments for deletion are sound, and the arguments against a weak yet numerous, it is possible that an admin may be compelled to delete the page.
Both regular users and admins alike can be motivated along a particular course of action by their peers. The be bold maxim comes with the caveat "...but don't be reckless" as recklessness tends to be viewed in a very negative light. Even when persuaded by a particular course of action, a user might not act for fear of being seen as reckless. Consider a particular straw poll where 4 members vote in favor of a proposal, and 6 members vote against. Consider also that the 4 members in favor are very well-known wikibookians, and that their arguments are particularly well thought-out and are very persuasive. It is unlikely that any user, though being properly persuaded by the voting minority, is going to act against the votes of a 60% majority. Despite proper persuasion, flagrantly ignoring the majority vote is something that most wikibookians will not do regularly, if at all.
Many policies have caveats that state a person should not exercise power when embroiled in a dispute. For instance, an editor should not make changes to a particular page when there are active objections to that edit. Likewise, an admin is encouraged not to delete pages that they themselves have nominated for VfD. The idea of persuasion in these instances is readily apparent. In the case of VfD, the nominating user (be they admin or not) must persuade other wikibookians to vote to delete, and the combined arguments must persuade an admin to actually perform the deletion.
It's wrong to think that any discussion is ever truly over, as wikibookians may certainly continue to discuss a particular issue long after action has been taken. No action is set in stone, and community opinion can change on matters over time. However, many discussions come to points where users with authority are sufficiently persuaded to take action, and are sufficiently sure that such action will not be reckless. It is tempting for people at this point to say "the matter is decided" or "the discussion is over", when no discussion is ever truly over. However, the fact that a discussion continues does not mean that action must wait. Actions may certainly be performed before a discussion is over, and if the discussion demonstrates that community opinion on the matter has changed, those actions may be modified or reverted entirely at a later time.
Progress as Natural SelectionEdit
Stagnation is the enemy of this project and any project. Any proposal or discussion that is sufficiently stagnant will discourage future contributors, and prevent people from taking action where action is needed. If a discussion is essentially abandoned on account of garnering too little support either way,it becomes more difficult to get community members to discuss their opinions on the matter. Without fresh opinions, it is impossible to determine what the community thinks about a particular issue. As Einstein said, "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." Action, even when there is uncertainty as to the outcome, is almost always better then no action at all. If an incorrect action is taken, the community can learn from the mistake and act to correct it. If a correct action is taken, the community will benefit from that. Thomas Edison once said "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." While it is unlikely that wikibookians will attempt any action 10,000 times, it is always more valuable to know 1 incorrect way to perform that action then to know nothing about performing it at all.
Call it policy or "guidelines" or whatever, there is absolutely no sense in not putting in writing exactly what this community expects from it's members, and exactly how we do business around here. There are minimalists out there who don't think that we should need to write any policies at all, and instead rely on people to use their "common sense" in making decisions. I don't think that can work at all.
This is not to say that we need to micromanage our members, or that we need to have a million different rules, but saying simply "use common sense" is not enough to run a community. There are a few things that should be specified:
- How we make decisions
- How we interact with one another (be nice, no personal attacks, no threats, etc)
- How this website is run (administrative tasks, cleanup, etc)
- How materials should be organized
- How we deal with disputes and differences of opinion
- What kinds of materials can and cannot be on our project
Defining specifically that wikibooks is for "textbooks" prompts the requirement that we define "textbook". There is no way to use common sense to decide whether one non-fiction book is considered a "textbook" or not.
The things that must be followed are policy. Policy are rules that must be followed in order to achieve our mission objectives. The things that should be followed are guidelines. Guidelines are, for all intents and purposes, rules of operation, but some people seem to get bent less out-of shape when we call a rule a guideline rather then a policy. I don't think that there is a difference, a rule is a rule. We should specify the rules, and we should expect that people will follow them.